The launch by Wal-Mart Stores of its Great For You icon is a positive move by the retailer to encourage consumers to choose healthier foods. However, Ben Cooper writes, the retailer has so far failed to commit to using the industry's new Facts Up Front nutritional label on its products.

With the Food and Drug Administration mulling its next move following the publication of the Institute of Medicine's reports on front-of-pack (FOP) nutritional labelling, and the roll-out of the industry's Facts Up Front programme well underway, FOP labelling has been a prominent issue in the US in recent months. And the launch earlier this month of a new front-of-pack concept by Wal-Mart Stores has ensured further discussion.

Described as "a transparent, summary icon backed by rigorous nutrition criteria", the Great For You symbol will initially appear on selected Great Value and Marketside private-label products, as well as on fresh and packaged fruits and vegetables, in stores nationwide from this spring.

The icon will, says Wal-Mart, provide customers with "an easy way to quickly identify healthier food choices". Great For You has a twofold focus: to encourage people to eat more healthy foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy and lean meats, and limit the intake of less healthy foods with high fat, sodium and added sugar content.

Consumer advocacy group the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) gave the programme a cautious welcome saying it "should help many shoppers choose healthier foods". However, CSPI said that while the programme does "an excellent job of highlighting healthful foods in many food categories", it added that it was not fool-proof and some "distinctly not-great-for-you foods" also qualified for the symbol.

The retailer stressed that the criteria behind the scheme were informed by the latest nutrition science and authoritative guidance from the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), US Department of Agriculture and the Institute of Medicine (IOM), and were developed in consultation with food and nutrition experts from the public and private sectors.

From one point of view it is no surprise to see Wal-Mart make this move. Diet and health issues, and in particular high obesity rates among adults and children, are a major concern in the US, and corporate engagement around the issue has increased during the Obama presidency, spurred both by Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign and activity among government agencies.

In a sense, it is more of a surprise that the country's largest food retailer is only now making such a move.

However, coming as the industry is seeking to achieve maximum take-up of its Facts Up Front programme and demonstrate to the FDA that this can serve as the uniform, standardised FOP system that the IOM has recommended, the high-profile launch of Great for You could be seen as something of an unwanted distraction.

It should be stressed that the two schemes are not directly comparable. While Great For You is an icon designed to identify better-for-you foods, Facts Up Front is a label showing the levels of key nutrients which can be applied to any product.

Therefore claims by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), which with the Food Marketing Institute developed Facts Up Front, that the two programmes are complementary are justified.

"They are complementary," the GMA's Sean McBride tells just-food. "Wal-Mart's programme applies to their private-label brands, and they announced that their expectation was that the products in their stores could carry both Facts Up Front and their Great for You symbol."

A little historical perspective is required here. When the industry launched its Smart Choices front-of-pack nutritional labelling programme in 2009, it was roundly criticised by the FDA and promptly suspended. At the same time, the FDA itself began to look into front-of-pack labelling and commissioned two reports from the IOM, the second of which was published in October.

The IOM not only concludes that consumers would be best served by a uniform, standardised front-of-pack nutritional labelling system, but also that the multiplicity of labelling schemes and icons in the marketplace is not helpful and could lead to consumer confusion.

However, McBride suggests the "revolution" in the amount of nutrition information available to consumers seen in recent years has provided "a holistic database for consumers that are seeking information about how to achieve a healthy diet", that these information sources complement one another and that consumers benefit "from having more information rather than less". 

McBride was anxious not to be seen to be criticising the IOM, though it appears hard to reconcile these two positions. "I wouldn't say that I take issue with IOM. I would just say that industry's take on all this is that these programmes can co-exist and together can help consumers make informed decisions."

CSPI executive director Michael Jacobson says that while the Wal-Mart stores move "does add a bit to the cacophony", it also "offers another scheme that could be evaluated".

As Facts Up Front and Great for You are qualitatively different concepts, they could certainly be used in tandem. The question is whether they will and if so when. 

McBride's suggestion that it is the retailer's "expectation" to feature both schemes appears premature.

On its press release, Wal-Mart was careful not to commit itself, only stating that Great for You "can be complementary to other nutrition labelling systems being used by the food industry".

The retailer may be concerned that including the Facts Up Front label with the Great for You icon could risk overloading the consumer with information. While technically compatible, trying to incorporate Facts Up Front and Great for You while avoiding a cluttered appearance could also represent a design challenge.

Wal-Mart deciding that just having the Great for You icon is a sufficient front-of-pack cue for consumers would not be a total disaster for the Facts Up Front programme. It would only affect a proportion of its private-label range. And as the products concerned would by definition already be flagged for their nutritional value, with consumers able to turn to the nutrition facts panel for further information, there is perhaps less of a problem from a consumer perspective. 

More worrying perhaps for those at the GMA and FMI seeking to promote Facts Up Front to consumers and to the FDA, is the retailer's view on Facts Up Front overall.

When asked by just-food to clarify its position on the use of Facts Up Front with Great for You products, media relations director Lorenzo Lopez was noncommittal, and significantly added that it was still reviewing its participation in Facts Up Front as a whole.

"We've said the Great For You icon is complementary to other front-of-pack nutrition labelling systems currently used by the food industry. However, at this time we are still evaluating the use of the Facts Up Front label on Wal-Mart private-label products, which would include Great Value and Marketside." This evaluation did not extend to any trials of the system, Lopez added, and the retailer would not give any further indication of how long the evaluation may take.

With food manufacturers beginning to add the Facts Up Front panel to their products, there will be plenty of products on Wal-Mart shelves using the system, but its continued absence from the retailer's private-label ranges would be a dent in GMA/FMI aspirations for ubiquity and would hardly serve as a ringing endorsement of the programme.